What’s Left (of the Left) or the politics of desperation By William Bowles

26 April 2004

In a column entitled “What’s Left” by Stephen Gowans, Gowans advocates voting for Bush in order to keep Kerry out. His reasoning goes as follows:

“There are, then, two choices this November. You can vote, or not vote. If you don’t vote, there’s a chance the militarist, war criminal, Hitler-like Kerry will become President. Or you can be realistic, and vote for the one candidate who has a chance of stopping him: Bush.

“And with Bush in the White House, his new Leftist constituency can mobilize and agitate to make clear the militarist, bold exercise of US power proposed by the other guy won’t be tolerated. If it’s possible to bore within the Democratic Party, to push it to the Left, why not with the Republicans? Give it a try!”

We are faced with a similar dilemma here in the UK: whether to vote for Labour in order to keep the Tories out as well as in the (vain) hope that we can force a third successive Labour government to the left. But what’s wrong with this reasoning? After all, for several decades, the left in the UK has been faced with this paradox that ultimately comes down to the politics of pragmatism. The argument being, if you vote based on principle, then effectively, you’re throwing your vote away on a party that doesn’t have a hope in hell of being elected.

But what is your vote for? Doesn’t it reveal the essentially empty nature of our so-called democracy, where the ‘vote’ has been reduced to a ritual that in part explains why fewer and fewer people exercise their franchise with each successive election?

There are, moreover, even more fundamental issues at stake here concerning the nature of the system we live under and our responsibility as citizens, for let’s face it, we live in an age where reaction has triumphed following the failure of the socialist project to offer a viable alternative to capitalism.

The last major struggle between capital and labour that took place under the Iron (high) Heel of Thatcher (imperialism in drag?), also heralded the passing of an era and in its way created the pre-conditions for the Blair counter-revolution, where the objective — at any cost— was to win an election in a bizarre development that can best be described as the ‘end justifying the end’.

Gowans reaction along with the ‘progressives’ he challenged (Chomsky et al) who see Kerry as an alternative over which they perhaps have more control than that of Bush and the Republican Party, in my opinion, entirely misses the point of what politics is all about. First and foremost, politics is not about the vote per se but about our involvement in the political process (what some call extra-parliamentary action) that goes to the very heart of the relationship between the ‘people’ and the state. A friend just suggested to me that the Gowans piece is an ironic piss-take and it may well be so but if so, as I suggested in my reply, it surely reveals a left bankrupt of ideas or what I call the politics of desperation (or is it the desperation of politics?).

We have moreover, an unparalleled opportunity today inasmuch as the ‘people’ have actually for the first time in several generations lost faith in the state to rule us. This is a situation that the ruling class are all too aware of and the dangers inherent in a situation where the state loses its legitimacy to rule. Yet where is the Left in this new paradigm (as our post-modern friends would put it)? It would seem that in this respect, the enemy is well ahead of us. Not to put it too mildly, I’d say that the Left has to get its act together and stop fucking around playing at politics. Perhaps we in the West, have it just too easy? Life too comfortable? But for how long? The writing is on the wall. ‘Thug’ Blunkett’s draft bill on biometric ID cards gets published today (26/04/04) and be sure this is just the first step of many in the state’s attack on the last thing we can call our own — our privacy. The ‘Nanny’ state is fast becoming the Nazi state.

I can’t pretend that this is either an easy process to unpack or one where instant solutions are available, but there are historical parallels available to us, most notably the old man Karl (Marx), who following the failure of the Revolution of 1871, took the line of a strategic ‘withdrawal’ into the world of journalism, writing columns for various publications, where he analysed the situation, attempting to draw some conclusions firstly, on what had happened (why the failure occurred) and what was the way forward. And whilst I can’t pretend to get anywhere near the genius of Marx (nor his razor-edged sense of humour), I can at least try to be true to my principles and ‘tell it like it is’ or at least the way I see it.

Of course, we can’t all ‘withdraw’ into the world of journalism and analysis and of course, ‘a luta continua’ but taking a different form. And so too, as the various letters I get from readers never fail to continually remind me, people want analysis, they want explanations (insofar as I am able to offer any). What is going on? Why, on the one hand do we have an imperialist project collapsing in tatters and yet no real progressive response that offers people a way forward?

If one goes back to the historic 2 million march of last year that was echoed around the planet by what amounts to the vast majority of people, we have to ask ourselves why did we not capitalise on the opportunity? Why did progressive forces, at least here in the UK, fail to mobilise around the biggest expression against war this country has ever seen? A failure that I see as criminal negligence on the part of the so-called Left.

In part of course, the blame has to be laid squarely at the feet of the Stop the War Coalition, with their wish-washy opposition that put so much faith on the UN’s role (or lack thereof). A sure sign of political opportunism at work, afraid that if they opposed the war on questions of principle, they would not gain the support of ‘ordinary’, so-called non-political citizens, a position that the Iraqis, British and American troops are still paying the price for with their lives.

All of this points to the issue of principle that has nothing to do with who gets ‘elected’, for whoever gets elected whether Labour, Tory or Liberal Democrat, the outcome will still be the same.

I could of course, cop-out on this and say well, we’re still in the throes of the triumph of capital following the collapse of the Soviet Union, blah-blah-blah…but just because capitalism is in crisis doesn’t mean the left has the answers. After all, we need only look at the rise of Fascism and the left’s response and even if the situation is radically different now, there are fundamental issues at stake today that have a direct parallel with the 1930s. Divisions within the Left, in part led to the triumph of Fascism (that is, Capitalism with a Fascist face).

Firstly, as in the 1930s, capitalism is in crisis and its response is patently obvious (the ‘war on terror’ being the most visible aspect). Parallel to this is the disarray and increasing divergence of the various strands within the capitalist world (eg the EU versus the USUK), all of which contain the seeds for an alternative to the present madness (see my Socialist Alternative essays for more on this).

In the UK, one response has been the Unity Coalition that I’ve written about and I’ve voiced my misgivings over this route. But above all else, the fundamental problem that confronts us is how does one get people involved in political activity of any kind, let alone an anti-capitalist one? Yet people are unhappy, a life of consumerism has not provided an answer. It’s clear to most that we are confronted with a growing environmental crisis as a result of unrestrained capitalist ‘growth’ (read mindless and pointless consumption).

And just as important is the role of propaganda that is also intimately connected to the centuries-long imperialist project that has effectively co-opted large sections of the population either through bribery or through intimidation. And the role of the ideology of Racism is even more central to this process than many (if not most) on the Left refuse to face up to. It’s all very well talking about ‘divide and rule’ and all the other tactics used to persuade people to go along with imperialism, but at its heart, it exploits fear and self-loathing, ignorance, greed and insecurity. These are not issues that are very amenable to rational analysis, as the Left in the West is still largely white, male and hence intrinsically patriarchal. These are issues that have to be confronted head-on. For more on this, I recommend a visit to Black Agenda Report, especially for whites, because ultimately of course, this is a struggle for the whole of humanity but at least let’s take a step to comprehend what it means for people of colour who have a double burden to carry. And don’t get me wrong, this is not about guilt, this is about real politics as surely the events in Iraq or Palestine illustrate.

The wreckage of the Left after the collapse of almost a century of struggle was not only a political defeat it was also a defeat on a psychological level, a loss of faith if you will in the ability for justice to prevail. So whose ‘fault’ is this? Is it anybody’s fault?

Central to my own ‘mission’ if you will, is in reinventing the Left, hopefully shorn of most of the baggage we’ve been carrying for the better of a century. A project that I believe has two essential elements:

  1. The continual struggle to expose imperialism’s ‘evil ways’
  2. To explore on both a theoretical and practical level, the possibilities that are open to us for an alternative political and economic model that offers all the people of the planet some hope for the future

And in spite of the enormous obstacles, I think that whatever form it takes, it can only be global in scope given that imperialism’s reach is now truly global. This, in spite of the immense logistical difficulties of organising on a global scale. Yet there are indications, pointers if you like.

One is the emergence of large economic blocks such as the EU (soon to embrace 25 countries) where in spite of the unevenness and contradictions inherent within such a capitalist formation, it still offers the possibility firstly for a set of international standards covering labour rights, gender and ‘race’ rights, civil rights, the struggle around fair trade and so forth. (This also explains the Blair government’s turnaround based on a sectarian and backward looking nationalist opposition to the EU and surely should be an exposé for all those (still) in the Labour Party who are in two minds about Blair and his wholesale adoption of the imperialism of an age gone by.)

Second is the critical issue of recapturing the struggle against piratical capitalism in the poor countries of the world from the reaction of backward-looking religion epitomised in such things as so-called Islamic fundamentalism. Osama and his millionaire friends are the other side of the coin of global capitalism, opposed as much to economic and political justice as are Blair and Bush.

Third is the recapturing by the Left of the so-called anti-globalisation movement and redirecting its energies into the development of a coherent pro-socialist movement for global justice.

But in order for any these projects to have a future, it is necessary to shrug of the sectarian baggage of the past and instead to learn from our mistakes, from the lessons that history can teach us (if only we’d learn). No mean feat obviously, but to do otherwise is to sink into a miasma such as the one advocated by Gowans, as if the Pirates of Pennsylvania Avenue are the only options open to the American people or Blair or the ‘Fanged One’ are the only options open to the British.

And I must say that I learned many lessons through my involvement with the struggle against Apartheid, coming as it did ‘on the cusp’ of the defeat of ‘actually existing socialism’ that enabled it to slip through a temporary gap in the wall that separated the two eras.

I will of course, continue to expose the actual workings of the Pirates, for in doing so exposes how they maintain their control over us. But equally important is exploring the alternatives and judging by the mail I receive, I’d say that’s what my readers want too.

Take this as an opening salvo, or the first step of a ‘work in progress’ that I hope will be more fully realised when the new Website gets launched later this year. Talking of which, we are looking for volunteers and contributors for the new site. Briefly, it will have three sections:

Politics/Current Affairs and Economics
Science/Tech, the Environment

Hopefully representing the four corners of the world, Africa, Asia, the Americas and Europe. You know how to get in touch.


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